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Thriving privacy site SelectOut.org puts 19-year-old in high demand

March 11, 2011 by

Calvin Pappas of SelectOut.org. Photo from a video interview we conducted with Pappas earlier this week.

Calvin Pappas seems to eat, sleep and breathe online privacy policy. Sometimes almost literally.

Pappas, a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Nebraska and founder of online privacy manager SelectOut.org said he has brushed up on internet privacy by reading more than 600 policies — most of which amount to 2,500 words of drowse-inducing legalese.

“It’s a good way,” he said, “to fall asleep at night.”

And for Pappas, it’s been a good way to build a business that is garnering widespread interest — he’s popped up recently in places like the Wall Street Journal and Mashable — and picking up serious steam.

After working as an intern last summer at RapLeaf, an online data firm based in Silicon Valley, Pappas turned down job offers to stay in The Valley. Instead, he returned to school and started SelectOut, which is billed as a resource to “help enlighten internet users about their choices, the companies that are behind data online, and give users the options choose for themselves.” In other words, SelectOut educates its users about companies that track their internet use and gives those users the choice to stop the companies from tracking them.

SelectOut was born out of Pappas’ thorough understanding of online privacy coupled with his realization that most people are almost completely in the dark on the subject. The site provides users a one-stop-shop to opt out of being followed by more than 100 tracking companies.

Screenshot of SelectOut.org

“I looked into the industry,” Pappas said. “There were a few companies out there, but nothing really conglomerated and put together. And so I decided, you know, I can do something better than what’s already out there.”

Lately, business is booming. Before March, Pappas set what he figured was a fairly optimistic goal of 1 million opt-outs by month’s end. He hit that target early Tuesday, with more than three weeks to spare. By Wednesday, SelectOut had facilitated 1.4 million opt-outs.

SelectOut.org out is free to use, and Pappas, citing Evan Williams as an influence, said he intends to keep it that way. But Pappas is hustling to develop other sources of revenue.

Pappas hopes to work out licensing agreements with pay sites that specialize in online security. He also has designs on helping companies become more transparent through simplified policies, proper practices and customizable tools to engage users.

Meanwhile, he’s on the verge of releasing a new version of SelectOut that he said will be more user-friendly and able to go viral more easily.

Pappas cites relationships with tracking companies as key to SelectOut’s growth so far and its sustained success in the future.

“I actually went out to these companies and I worked with them to try to provide a cleaner opt-out script that I can access from SelectOut,” Pappas said. “Not every company has jumped on board yet, but I’m slowly adding more and more and as the traffic has grown a lot more companies have been interested in wanting to get involved in this.”

At this point, Pappas is SelectOut’s only employee, and he juggles his business with class — he said three tests next week factor as prominently into his immediate plans as SelectOut— and, occasionally, being a college kid — he celebrated 1 million opt-outs with a night at a Lincoln Stars game.

“I have hired some people, freelance, for a few minor projects,” Pappas said. “I’m trying to convince them to go on part-time at least, or full-time if they can. But no student wants to work very much while they’re in school.

Well, almost no student.

“It started off the beginning of the school year as almost a project to really work on extra,” Pappas said, “and it’s really developed a lot more since then and kind of engulfed my life a little bit. It’s almost like going to school is getting in the way of my education.

“It’s kind of hard to cover all the bases right now, but I’m definitely trying to continue with that as much as I can.”

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